The most memorable joke cracked by the late British funnyman and game-show host Bob Monkhouse was this one: “People used to laugh when I told them one day I’d become a famous comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now.”
I’m sure many commentators living north and south of the Irish border are saying something similar now that Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations with the European Union have ended up stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock is the Republic of Ireland’s aversion to the creation of a ‘hard border’ between it and Northern Ireland and its demand for both parts of the island to have ‘regulatory alignment’ (i.e. Northern Ireland quietly remaining in the EU’s customs union and single market). The hard place is the insistence by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, on whose ten Westminster MPs May’s minority Conservative government depends for support and survival, that Northern Ireland gets treated no differently from the rest of the United Kingdom during Brexit (i.e. if the UK quits the customs union and single market, Northern Ireland does too).
In other words: “Brexiters used to laugh when I told them the Irish border would be a massive problem if the UK voted to leave the EU. Well, they’re not laughing now.”
Their attitude in the run-up to the Brexit vote in June 2016 wasn’t so much one of laughter, though, as one of sheer disinterest and ignorance. It depressed me that on the morning of June 24th, just after the vote’s result was announced, the BBC showed a panel of British politicians taking questions from an audience. An Irishman in the audience raised the border issue and was rudely and almost roundly ignored. (The only panel-member to acknowledge his concerns was, significantly, Alex Salmond.)
Not that the British political or media establishments have shown any lessening in their ignorance of things Irish since then. For instance, a recent editorial in The Sun advised Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to ‘shut his gob’ about Brexit; and right-wing politicians and commentators have generally talked about the Irish Republic so high-handedly you’d think they believed it was still one of Britain’s colonial possessions. All this is despite the Republic of Ireland, as one of the remaining 27 members of the EU, having a veto over any deal between the EU and the departing UK that it sees as damaging to its interests.
Mind you, if you really want to soil yourself and experience all-out, full-frontal ignorance among the players in this fiasco, you should check out the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP includes among its ranks such God-bothering, science-disdaining eejits as Thomas Buchanan, a campaigner for the teaching of creationism in schools who rejects evolution as a “peddled lie” because, he reckons, “the world was spoken into existence in six days by His power”. Then there’s Sammy Wilson, who maintains that climate change isn’t happening and has denounced the Paris Agreement as “window dressing for climate chancers”. It’s mind-melting that Wilson was once Northern Irish Environment Minister. And let’s not forget Trevor Clarke, who until very recently believed that HIV affected gay people only. With IQs at near-subterranean levels, it’s unsurprising that the DUP is able hold conflicting views without seeing any illogicality in holding them. Most notably, it chants endlessly about Northern Ireland being exactly the same as the rest of the UK, for example, whilst insisting that Northern Irish law continues to ban abortion and same-sex marriage, both of which are legal in the rest of the UK.
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And low IQs might explain why, for a fiercely Christian outfit, it seems to have a lot of difficulty interpreting the teachings of Jesus Christ, which I thought were explicit in stating that Christ’s followers should not behave like corrupt, shifty, greedy, hypocritical tossers. For instance, there was the ultra-dodgy Renewable Heat Incentive, or ‘cash-for-ash’ scheme, which was introduced in 2012 while the party’s leader and one-time Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster ran Northern Ireland’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Ostensibly, this encouraged people to switch from fossil fuel to biomass heating systems. In reality, it meant unscrupulous farmers – many of them no doubt DUP voters – could set up biomass heating systems in empty cowsheds and still claim back £1.60 for every £1 they spent. The scheme’s believed to have cost taxpayers some £400 million. And then there was a £425,000 donation to the DUP from the shady anti-Scottish-independence organisation the Constitutional Research Council, rumoured to have really originated in Saudi Arabia, India or even Putin’s Russia. In 2016, £282,000 of this was spent by the DUP on a ‘Vote Leave’ advertisement in a newspaper that wasn’t even published in Northern Ireland.
The most hilarious instance of DUP sleaze and sinfulness, though, was the 2009 scandal involving Iris Robinson – senior DUP figure, wife of Arlene Foster’s predecessor as party leader and First Minister Peter Robinson, and well-known denouncer of homosexuality as an ‘abomination’ – who had an extramarital affair with a lad young enough to be her grandson and also illegally procured some £50,000 to help him with a business project. While Iris obliterated the seventh and eighth commandments, hubby Peter was content to line his pockets with hefty political salaries, allowances and alleged fixer-fees in direct contravention of what Matthew chapter 19, verses 16-26 said about camels, eyes of needles, rich men and heaven. No wonder the pair of them have been dubbed the Swish Family Robinson.
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From all accounts, Theresa May, the Republic of Ireland government and the EU were close to agreement yesterday on ‘regulatory alignment’ between the northern and southern parts of Ireland when Arlene Foster and the DUP scuppered it. The deal would have helped to cushion the massive economic blow that Brexit looks certain to inflict on Northern Ireland. (And the DUP is aware of this threat – soon after the 2016 referendum, and having championed a leave vote, the DUP saw no shame in sending Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister, Michelle McIlveen, scuttling off to Brussels to beg for continued EU support for Northern Irish farmers.) And at best, it could have given the Northern Irish economy a real boost – imagine how attractive the place might have looked to investors as a corner of the UK that was still in the EU’s customs union and single market. But as I’ve said, the DUP refused to countenance anything that’d make it different from the rest of the UK (apart from having medieval anti-abortion and anti-same-sex-marriage laws, obviously). And among its members and supporters are plenty of red-white-and-blue nutters who’d saw off their own legs and strangle their own grandmothers if they thought it’d make them more British.
Ironically, I think this is hastening the very thing that the DUP abhors, which is the prospect of a united Ireland. Although demographics are changing in Northern Ireland, with Roman Catholics looking set to soon outnumber Protestants, it seemed to me there was a large, mainly middle-class section of the Catholic community who were reasonably relaxed about staying part of the UK so long as Northern Ireland remained politically and economically stable and they had the safeguards guaranteed by 1998’s Good Friday agreement. However, with the impending shitstorm of Brexit, I suspect many of those moderate Catholics will now swing towards supporting union with the south. (When people asked me, I used to tell them I didn’t expect to see a united Ireland in my lifetime. Now I’m starting to wonder.)
Amusingly, in the short term, if this spat continues between Theresa May and the DUP and the latter withdraws its support for the former, May’s government could collapse – resulting in yet another general election and the possibility that Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn becomes the next UK prime minister. And it’s well known how old lefty Jeremy was, in the past, good friends with some people from Northern Ireland who definitely aren’t on Arlene Foster’s Christmas card list.
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Meanwhile, I sympathise with the many folk in the UK who, thanks to this crisis, have finally discovered that their country’s post-Brexit future depends on the whims of a political party from Northern Ireland whose asininity, venality and zealotry is truly of Trumpian levels. Happy days.